EDITOR’S NOTE: North Texas became a member of Conference USA at the beginning of July 2013. In its three-part series, the Denton Record-Chronicle is looking at the impact that UNT’s move to C-USA after 12 years in the Sun Belt Conference had on the school, how its athletic program fared and where the Mean Green is headed. Today’s second part of the series looks at the impact the move made on the UNT men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Success is often a product of timing in college athletics.
There were plenty of instances in North Texas’ debut campaign in Conference USA when the school had perfect timing. UNT won its first bowl game in 11 years when it knocked off UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl behind a senior-laden team loaded with some of the top players in recent school history.
UNT’s basketball teams weren’t as fortunate during the Mean Green’s first calendar year in Conference USA that officially wrapped up last Tuesday.
UNT’s men’s and women’s basketball teams entered their first seasons in C-USA off disappointing years and couldn’t turn the tide in their debuts campaigns in the league, finishing 16-16 and 12-18, respectively. Those struggles came as no surprise to UNT officials and coaches.
“We knew that the transition in basketball in Conference USA would be the toughest,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “If you look at that league, it was ranked among the top 10 in the country for several years.”
UNT’s problems in its first season in the league were not limited to basketball. The school also experienced some tough times in track and field and golf, finishing toward the bottom of the league in conference championship tournaments and meets.
Those programs don’t attract nearly the attention as UNT’s basketball teams, though, which makes finding a way to improve in basketball arguably UNT’s biggest challenge as it heads into its second year in C-USA.
The UNT men’s basketball team posted six straight winning seasons and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice during a run of success that ended with the 2011-12 campaign under then head coach Johnny Jones. Tony Benford took over after Jones left for LSU following the last of those six straight winning seasons and led UNT to a 12-20 finish in his first campaign before last season’s .500 finish.
UNT’s struggles have been even more pronounced in women’s basketball. The Mean Green finished 11-19 in its last season in the Sun Belt before improving its win total by one last year.
Both Benford and UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen attributed their teams’ struggles last season largely to the jump in the level of competition UNT faced.
UNT men plan to adjust
Benford said heading into last season that making the transition to playing in C-USA would be a challenge. His opinion didn’t change a bit after UNT finished 11th in the 16-team league standings at 6-10.
“This is a really good basketball league, one that I think is underrated,” Benford said. “There are really good players, venues and coaches in this league.
“Nothing against the Sun Belt, but we went up a level.”
C-USA ranked 13th nationally, according to WarrenNolan.com, which ranks college conferences. The Sun Belt ranked 15th in UNT’s final year in the league.
There were times UNT appeared more than equipped for the jump to C-USA, including on New Year’s Eve, when the Mean Green rolled into College Station and trounced Texas A&M 61-41.
“It’s indescribable,” UNT guard Maurice Aniefiok said of the feeling the Mean Green had after the win. “Coach has been preaching to us all year about how good we are.”
UNT struggled to replicate that performance the rest of the season. Benford attributed those struggles partly to the higher level of competition in C-USA and has spent hours upon hours looking for ways his team can adjust. After examining the ups and downs of his first two seasons at UNT, Benford has elected to move to a smaller, quicker lineup in what he considers a guard-oriented league.
UNT is depending on Muhammed Ahmed of Gillette (Wyo.) College and Jeremy Combs of Dallas Carter, a pair of 6-foot-7 forwards who will join the team this fall, to help the Mean Green make the adjustment.
Ahmed and Combs will essentially replace Keith Coleman and Kelvin Gaines, a pair of bruising 6-10 forwards who left the program at the end of their junior seasons. Gaines elected to pursue a pro career, while Coleman was dismissed for a violation of team rules.
Neither Gaines nor Coleman made a significant impact in their final season at UNT, averaging 3.0 and 0.6 points a game, respectively.
UNT is depending on Benford’s change in philosophy to revive interest in the program. Home attendance plummeted to an average of 2,373 last year, down 1,145 fans a game from the 2012-13 season, a 32.5 percent decrease.
UNT officials are anxious to see the men’s basketball program return to the level of success it enjoyed just a few years ago, when the Mean Green was twice on the national stage in the NCAA tournament.
“We are excited about the kids he is bringing in,” Villarreal said of Benford. “But there is no doubt that in his third year, regardless of being in Conference USA, we have to play better.”
Women eye breakthrough
The impact of the move to C-USA was also evident in women’s basketball, where UNT played under three coaches in three years before Petersen returned for his second season that coincided with the Mean Green’s move to a new league.
UNT finished in a tie for ninth in the C-USA standings in its first season in the conference.
Petersen attributed the Mean Green’s struggles to the strength of C-USA, in addition to instability in terms of coaching. C-USA ranked 10th among conferences nationally last season and was substantially stronger than the Sun Belt, which checked in at 14th during UNT’s last season in that league, according WarrenNolan.com.
UNT arrived just in time for one of C-USA’s best seasons in recent memory.
Middle Tennessee was the only C-USA team to make the NCAA tournament, but a record six teams advanced to the Women’s NIT, including UTEP, which fell to Rutgers in the championship game.
“The jump in the level of programs we were facing was pretty significant, and the jump in high-end players was really significant,” Petersen said. “When we were at Conference USA’s spring meetings, there were four kids who played in our league last year who were still on WNBA rosters.”
UNT’s coaches and players believe they were not all that far off during their first season in C-USA, despite the strength of the league.
Petersen cited the fact that UNT dropped five games in conference play that were decided in the final minute during a season in which the Mean Green lost four key players to knee injuries, including starters BreAnna Dawkins, Candice Adams and Acheil Tac.
Those injuries left UNT severely shorthanded at times, but the Mean Green still took SMU to overtime and fell to Tulane on a last-second layup. Both SMU and Tulane played in the WNIT.
“It’s the same sad story over and over,” UNT guard Laura McCoy said late in her senior season as opportunity after opportunity slipped away in the Mean Green’s first C-USA campaign.
Petersen believes that UNT is bound to start winning close games if it can avoid another devastating run of injuries, especially with several key players returning who gained experience at the C-USA level.
UNT will return five of its top six scorers, which will be a distinct advantage in a year 15 of the 16 players who were named to the All-C-USA team will not return.
Nine members of the All-C-USA team were seniors, five are underclassmen who play for teams that left the league at the end of the year and one transferred. Louisiana Tech forward Whitney Frazier was a second-team pick and is the only All-C-USA player who will return this season.
Tulane and East Carolina, which both played in the WNIT last season, left the league at the end of the school year, along with Tulsa. All three schools joined the American Athletic Conference.
Petersen isn’t planning anything like the philosophical shift Benford is with the UNT men’s team. His hope is the maturation of his team and what looks like it could be an easier C-USA lineup following the departure of so many key players and teams will help the Mean Green improve.
“This was a season we made progress,” Petersen said. “But we didn’t have the win-loss record to show it.”
UNT is hoping that will change in its second season in C-USA, when the Mean Green believes the timing will be right for its basketball programs to break out.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
A tough first season
The North Texas men’s and women’s basketball teams endured tough debut seasons in Conference USA. The following is a look back:
Overall record: 16-16
Conference record: 6-10, 11th in C-USA
Highlights: UNT hammered Texas A&M 61-41 on New Year’s Eve and won four straight C-USA games in February.
Low points: UNT lost to Stephen F. Austin 87-53 at the Super Pit and lost five straight C-USA games beginning in late January.
Overall record: 12-18
Conference record: 6-10, tied for ninth in C-USA
Highlights: UNT beat UTEP 73-64 in a year the Miners finished third in C-USA and advanced to the Women’s NIT final before losing to Rutgers. UNT also hammered Dallas-area rival UT-Arlington 70-55.
Low points: UNT lost three of its last four regular-season games, entered the C-USA tournament as the No. 11 seed and was upset, 77-59, by Louisiana Tech, the No. 14 seed, in an opening-round game.
— Brett Vito
Conference finish by year
The following is a comparison of how North Texas’ teams finished in their final year in the Sun Belt Conference and their first season in Conference USA:
Sport Sun Belt 2012-13 Conference USA 2013-14
Football 4-8, 3-5 SBC, tied 6th overall 9-4, 6-2 C-USA, tied 2nd West Div.
Men’s basketball 12-20, 7-13 SBC, 4th West Div. 16-16, 6-10 C-USA, 11th overall
Women’s basketball 11-19, 10-10 SBC, 3rd West Div. 12-18, 6-10 C-USA, tied 9th overall
Men’s cross country Sun Belt meet: 2nd C-USA meet: 2nd
Women’s cross country Sun Belt meet: 6th C-USA meet: 3rd
Men’s golf Sun Belt tournament: 1st C-USA tournament: 10th
Women’s golf Sun Belt tournament: 8th C-USA tournament: 8th
Soccer 16-5-2, 8-1-1, tied 1st overall, won tourney 14-7-1, 6-3-1, 2nd West Div., lost in tourney final
Softball 29-24, 12-9 SBC, 4th overall 31-22, 14-9 C-USA, 5th overall
Swimming Sun Belt meet: 2nd C-USA meet: 5th
Tennis Sun Belt tournament: won tournament C-USA tournament: lost in semifinals
Men’s indoor track Sun Belt meet: 2nd C-USA meet: 8th
Women’s indoor track Sun Belt meet: 2nd C-USA meet: 9th
Men’s outdoor track Sun Belt meet: 4th C-USA meet: 7th
Women’s outdoor track Sun Belt meet: 1st C-USA meet: 12th
Volleyball 26-12, 9-5 SBC, tied 1st West Div. 17-15, 8-6 C-USA, tied 4th overall
NOTE: Conference USA does not have divisions in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, softball or volleyball.